SkyTruth harnesses satellite technology to empower environmentalists

John Amos and Paul Woods were ready when a fireball exploded in a marshy area of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana on April 4.

Amos analyzed digital images of the flare-up while Woods coordinated with the volunteer pilot organization SouthWings to conduct a flyover. Within hours, Amos had produced the only written report on a possibly “spectacular pipeline failure.”

The response was impressive, considering Amos and Woods were more than 1,000 miles away from Terrebonne Parish, at the offices of SkyTruth in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

As the visionaries behind SkyTruth, Amos and Woods are at the forefront of a high-tech data movement that is empowering environmentalists like never before. Using feeds from government-launched satellites, SkyTruth monitors global environmental activity, including oil spills, mining and fracking.

“Until recently, groups couldn’t afford to buy satellite imagery,” Woods said. “You could only get it from a commercial vendor who charged $3,000 for one picture. Even then, you needed someone with expertise to tell you what was going on. One of the ideas we were founded on is to provide that expertise.”

Among the group’s major projects is an ongoing investigation of a chronic oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico. While monitoring the response to the BP oil spill, SkyTruth discovered a second, unrelated slick.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan knocked over a platform attached to 26 wells. The ensuing mudslide sheared off all 26 well heads, with only the mud preventing raw oil from flowing unabated.

“The Coast Guard said that the polluter was working to clean it up,” Woods said. “What we found was that they weren’t working very diligently.”

Facts revealed by SkyTruth and backed up by dozens of satellite images paved the way for the Waterkeeper Alliance to sue the drilling company under the Clean Water Act.

Technology has made access to satellite imagery much more democratic, creating a unique opportunity for those like Amos and Woods. Through the Internet, satellite footage collected by NASA and the European Space Agency is available to the public. That has helped environmental groups running on a shoestring budget to gain equal footing with big oil companies who can afford high-priced and high-tech monitoring.

“In the ’80s and early ’90s, the price of software and hardware dropped steeply,” Amos said. “What remained was the high cost of in-house expertise. That’s the gap that we fill. We’re essentially acting as roving consultants.”

Amos, SkyTruth’s founder and President, studied geology at Cornell University and the University of Wyoming, where he earned a master’s degree. He worked for Advanced Resources International and Earth Satellite Corporation as an exploration geologist.

Once a part of the energy industry, Amos now finds himself raising awareness of its transgressions, along with a host of other offenders.

“I wouldn’t pin it on any one industry,” Woods said. “There are a lot of resource-management and extractive-use industries. Having independent visual evidence of that activity plays a valuable role in encouraging accountability. The applicability is the same for off-shore oil, copper and gold mining in Indonesia and logging in British Columbia. All of these issues are at the nexus of commercial profit motive overseen by government management responsibility.”

Chief Technology Officer Woods has spent more than 20 years developing technology companies. He is Vice President of Product Development for Intelligenx and attended the University of Maryland before working on startups in the Washington, D.C. area, including CareerBuilder and Compass Point Software.

“It’s the empowerment of little brother to keep an eye on big brother,” Woods said.

One of SkyTruth’s recent accomplishments came in November 2011. The group observed evidence of an oil leak from a deep-water well being drilled by Chevron off the coast of Brazil.

Initially, Chevron claimed the slick was caused by a natural oil seep. SkyTruth challenged that, and Chevron admitted to Brazilian officials they had a problem with the well that was severe enough to cause them to abandon it.  Evidence suggested that the spill could have been 10 times larger than Chevron reported.

“It was nowhere near the BP scale,” Woods said. “The issue wasn’t the size of the spill, it was the evasive explanation. Because of the absence of reliable, credible information, it was the story in every major media outlet in Brazil. That’s the kind of impact the little brother can make.”

Woods said he and Amos spent days answering interview requests from the Brazilian media and finding Portuguese interpreters to bridge the language gap. The exposure SkyTruth gave to the issue helped spur the Brazilian government to bring a criminal case against Chevron and drilling contractor Transocean.

“Now we have the ability to encourage better behavior and stronger government oversight, no matter where it’s happening,” Amos said. “That is a game-changer. We’re entering an era where anybody sitting at a computer can take ownership as a steward over a patch of earth, even if it’s on the other side of the planet. That’s exciting.”

SkyTruth was incorporated in 2001 and earned nonprofit status in 2002. SkyTruth is overseen by a five-member board of directors. Amos said their budget is primarily built on grants and charitable donations.

“I think we’re unique in that space,” Amos continued. “We want to expand the ability of other groups, interested folks on the web, to do what we’ve done. We’re building a “skytruthing” toolkit to provide a simple and straightforward application for folks who want to monitor gas drilling and mining operations, and other environmental concerns. That’s our five-year vision.”

Amos says SkyTruth stays above the political fray, preferring to provide scientific information and analysis that informs the debate. He points out that some of the nation’s major environmental laws were passed under Republican administrations and that fracking gained the blessing of the Clinton administration during the 1990s and the Obama administration today.

“Politically, we’re not left or right,” he said. “We support smarter, safer, more efficient management of resources.  To me that is a fundamentally conservative value, in the old-school sense of the word.”

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